At a glance.
- Meta taken to court over alleged incitement to genocide.
- Moscow cracks down on Tor.
- Slanging democracy.
Rohingya refugees sue Meta, alleging witting enabling of inflammatory hate speech.
Computing reports that Rohingya refugees are suing Facebook's corporate parent Meta, accusing the social medium of trading their lives in exchange for market penetration. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority in Myanmar, have suffered cruelly under both the current military regime and its civilian predecessor. According to Reuters, a class action suit has been filed in California, and a coordinated notice of intended action has also been given in the UK.
Meta has said, "We're appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We've built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), disrupted networks manipulating public debate and taken action on harmful misinformation to help keep people safe. We've also invested in Burmese-language technology to reduce the prevalence of violating content."
Social media in general and Facebook in particular have often been criticized for their failure to control posts on their platforms that constitute incitement to violence. The platforms have, in the US, generally relied on their Section 230 protections. Some of the criticism has had a spurious air, suggesting a general urge for prim censorship of unpopular views, but the use of Facebook in particular to incite widespread violence against a disfavored group in Myanmar is a more serious matter. The lawsuits may be unsuccessful, but the concerns they raise seem important, and worthy of serious consideration. Facebook has, Reuters says, previously said it had been "too slow to prevent misinformation and hate."
Russian government clamps down on Tor.
According to Reuters, the Russian government has extended its increasingly autarkic control over information transiting its Internet precincts by blocking the private service Tor. Tor has responded by offering affected users a workaround involving a mirror site, but it seems likely the Kremlin will itself respond with further restrictions. A service that enables private sharing will be unwelcome to a government that regards control of information as a central concern for state security.
Is American democracy really just a puppet show for the goobers? (Answer: no, but...)
That's more or less the line about American government (and by extension the governments of various allied democracies) taken by the more sophisticated advisors of the likes of Presidents Putin and Xi. That characterization of US democracy was prominent in the wake of disturbances at the US Capitol last January. See the Times of Israel for a contemporary summary of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian jeering that America's system was "fragile," "vulnerable," "chaotic," and, above all, ineffectual, incapable of discharging any government's responsibility for public safety. This isn't new. The 2016 US elections seem to have been an inflection point. The BBC at that time reported that Beijing's messaging had some success portraying the US system as more "entertainment" than serious government, and the Guardian noted that "hypocritical democracy" was a leading theme in China's retrospectives on US elections.
The upcoming "Summit of Democracies" being convened by the US has attracted similar comment. Neither Russia nor China received an invitation, and, even before that Summit was first publicly mooted, China's President Xi was deriding American democracy as "a game of the rich." Some Foreign Policy essays offer warnings on how the summit could backfire (seeing lack of focus as a danger), advice on the importance of domestic and allied accountability, and counsel against policy hubris. The Summit is intended to provide an answer to rising threats from authoritarian regimes, including Russian threats to Ukraine and Chinese threats to Taiwan.
Attacks on democratic institutions by authoritarians represent, to be sure, a cynical and self-serving view, but that view can be surprisingly persuasive. In certain moods even Joe Lunchbucket and Janie Sixpack can feel a tug in that direction.
Consider a letter from the White House someone known to us received this week. A few months ago, at the invitation of a White House email inviting comment on how the Administration was doing, the correspondent thought, OK, the President says he'd like to know my opinion on this, and so wrote a quick letter expressing polite but clear animadversions about one of Mr. Biden's core policy preferences. The correspondent had forgotten about the note until this week, when the following turned up in the correspondent's in-box. The name is redacted for the sake of the correspondent's privacy; the topic is redacted because it's irrelevant to the present point:
December 7, 2021
Dear [name redacted],
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about [single word redacted]. Hearing from passionate individuals like you inspires me every day, and I welcome the opportunity to respond to your letter.
Our country faces many challenges, and the road we will travel together will be one of the most difficult in our history. Despite these tough times, I have never been more optimistic for the future of America. I believe we are better positioned than any country in the world to lead in the 21st century not just by the example of our power but by the power of our example.
As we move forward to address the complex issues of our time, I encourage you to remain an active participant in helping write the next great chapter of the American story. We need your courage and dedication at this critical time, and we must meet this moment together as the United States of America. If we do that, I believe that our best days still lie ahead.
The recipient was unconvinced by the peroration, and now suspects that his country's best days surely lie behind us.
The recipient may be over-reacting, but on the other hand, the recipient's mood is understandable. Now, no serious person expects any President since, say, Lincoln, to respond to letters from private citizens, but no response would have been better than the treacly, condescending disregard this particular letter expressed when it finally showed up. The fact that the date, salutation, and first paragraph were in Arial while the rest of the letter was in Times New Roman seems to add to the patronizing insult (and to suggest that the White House communications office isn't attracting a very good class of interns).
Public affairs and mass communication are always challenging, and there are no easy ways of approaching it. But when the White House seems to be taking its tips from spammers, and when it can't exhibit even as much engagement and empathy as an Xbox help chatbot can muster, maybe the winning strategy of this communications game is simply not to play in the first place. Do better, White House, and all democrats with a small-d. The Constitution isn't a puppet theater for a slack-jawed citizenry, but this kind of thing just gives aid and comfort to the adversaries.